That Wintry Abyss: Reflections on Weather and Its Discontents


Published: March 2, 2011

Winter brings out the metaphysician in all of us. It suggests timeless questions as we walk down Ninth Avenue, making sure to avoid gravelly snow banks and the drip-drip of scaffolds. “What is the point of life, really, anyway?” one might ask, realizing that there are going to be months and months to come of grey skies and bundled bodies, of sludge and icy wind. Ugh. This is exacerbated by the fact that moving away to California’s seaside cliffs is 1) an economical pipe dream, and 2) actually a really hard fantasy to muster in the first place, given your dulled sense-perception.

Annemarie Gundel/The Observer

And there does seem to be a way in which winter leaves us completely debilitated. We spend the rest of the year unimpeded, able to go to the movies without thinking twice about our clothing, able to wander around for hours on end without freezing. Winter weakens, inconveniences and deflates us. Winter just gets added to the long list of factors that we have to contend with in daily life, as if having to deal with groceries and going to the post office and working (and commuting, for some of us) wasn’t enough, all on top of homework.

Yes, winter’s a lot. It’s demanding, it’s uncomfortable and it comes around Every Single Year. However, there does seem to be a way in which, without winter, our lives might be a little less full. That reason, of course, is Spring (indeedy, it earns every bit of the capitalization I give it). Oh, glorious, beautiful, heartbreaking Spring, with its honey sunshine and beds upon beds of tulips. Spring is given an added texture thanks to winter. It’s not just that Spring is gorgeous; no, no, spring reawakens us, reminds us that there is life beyond the compulsion to stay inside. It opens us back up to each other, to New York, to life. And what a very visceral relief there is in that, a very definite pressure lifted off all of our chests.

Or perhaps I’m the only one existentializing the weather. Perhaps not thinking about it would make it that much more bearable. And perhaps living my whole life up until this point in climates where “normal” is 80 degrees and humidity’s a given hasn’t exactly made me the best person to cope with the Northeast. (If you ever get too sick of New York’s winters, come to Houston in December, where the dreaded 40 degrees has finally been reached and every face you see is anxious and unhappy beneath furry parka hoods. You’ll see that you’re much luckier, because at least for you, 40 degrees is manageable, a blessing even.) At any rate, it is absolutely bizarre how much effect personless elements can have on our lives, consciously or not.

In closing, though, there is a strange way that winter does seem to unite all of us in our vulnerability: so many thousands of people all at once absolutely at the mercy of the elements. I think there’s something beautiful in that, given today’s modern world of invincible ideologies and instant gratification. We forget that we’re finite and that we’re fragile because we’ve landed on the moon and because a kid in Canada can communicate with a company in India in less than a second. We’ve stripped ourselves of the potential for wonder.

But, sometimes, I’ll look around a subway full of people, all wrapped from head to toe, and I will wonder, and in wondering, I will beam. How sweet it is, really, all of us strangers with an obstacle in common, all of us shrinking farther and farther into our coats to keep in our bodies’ warmth. Such a wonder how incredibly helpless, how inescapably human, we’ve all turned out to be.